Marbella - Roman Villa & Roman Baths

Rio Verde Villa with protective canopy © Michelle Chaplow
Rio Verde Villa with protective canopy
Medusa at Rio Verde Villa  © Michelle Chaplow
The original Medusa Mosaic of Rio Verde. © Michelle Chaplow 2013

What is there to see?

The ancient site at Rio Verde was once part of the great Roman city of Cilniana. It now houses the remains of a late 1st century AD Roman villa. Sadly all that is left is the floor and a small portion of the walls of the villa (the highest at 1.2 metres). However, fortunately for us it is a floor unlike any other - embellished with black and white mosaic tiles in patterns never before seen in a Roman Villa, and intricately encased by a border of the same unusual black and white stones. These mosaics could pass for a monument in their own right, and are certainly worth a visit.

The columns that would once have held the structure together have been removed, probably to form part of another grand structure in the surrounding area. However, the mosaics are completely unique and are famous for their unusual design. Where traditional mosaics would present classical themes and intricate designs, the villa at Rio Verde displays a bizarre collection of images in black and white: shoes, kitchen utensils and tables filled with food. They are incredibly well preserved. Objects found at the site during the archaeological excavation have been moved to the Archaeology Museum in Málaga.

Mosaics in a Roman Villa at Rio Verde.
Mosaics in the Roman Villa at Rio Verde. Photo taken in 1993 when there was no protection.

Where is it?

The Rio Verde site is situated to the west of Marbella about one km from Puerto Banus, next to the Río Verde and a short walk from Playa Rio Verde. The remains are preserved by a surrounding fence, and are now open to visitors between 10.30 and 13.30 on Friday Saturday and Sunday; to see them at any other time, you must arrange a group visit by calling 952 825 035. However, you can see the remains visible through the iron fence at any daylight time and there are signs with information about the site – although these are only in Spanish.

What is the historical value of the mosaics?

The mosaics themselves are one of a kind; instead of the traditional “classical” designs – apart from the image of Medusa´s head covered with snakes - they depict ordinary household objects: kitchen utensils, plates of meat and fish, a stove and clothing items such as shoes.

The style of the mosaics tells us a lot both about the history of the villa, and about traditional Roman customs. For example, the shoes displayed at what was the entrance to the triclinium (dining room), showcase the Roman tradition of removing one’s footwear before entering the eating area. Also, one of the mosaics - the amphorae (ceramic vases with two handles on the neck) are so accurately depicted that they have allowed the villa to be dated to 100 AD.

The courtyard is in the centre of the building  and surrounded on three sides by a terrace measuring 16 x 7 m. Its borders are decorated with black and white geometric strips.  The courtyard would have once been surrounded by slender marble columns, today only their supports remain.  

In the kitchen area, images of fowl and fish hung ready for the cooking pot, and tables covered with pork ribs, rabbit, chicken and clams, coupled with the existence (on the north side of the villa) of a bathroom complete with plunge pool, indicate that the family living there were relatively well-off. Historians have suggested that the villa was owned by a wealthy “out of towner”.

'Medusa' mosaic at Rio Verde Villa

The terraces lead to more rooms decorated with mosaics, one of which depicts a 'mythical face' indicating that this room may have been a shrine to a mythical god. The common held view is that this Medusa, queen of the Gorgons.  The symbolic appearance of a  Medusa´s head is an ancient Roman method used to ward off thieves and unwanted guests from the house, like an ancient scarecrow or guard dog. It was designed to warn intruders that their crimes were punishable by the gods. However it must be recognised  that this mosaic is not set in a prominant position but on the floor of one of its inner rooms. Chris Wawn and David Wood in their book 'In search of Andalucia' remain unconvinced, "Medusa turned men to stone because she was pertifying ugly, glaring eyes, huge protruding teeth, a snake's tongue and most of all serpents on her head instead of hair....  The Rio Verde image is more like a friendly uncle and incorporates pictures of ducks, birds and cups, none of which have any relavance to the Medusa legend".  

The Discovery

The site was discovered in July 1961 by Carlos Posac Mon y Fernando Alcalá. At that time the area was not built on and the summer before in August 1960 the aerchologists had explored and found Roman ceramics and coins on the land to the east of the River Verde mouth. They returned the next year and found more and luckily on the last day Juan Sánchez Villalta from the Marbella Council works department was digging a trench and uncovered the mosaics.  

ARCHAEOLOGICAL FINDS

Objects recovered during the site´s excavation since 1960 include: a small fragment of a marble statue, an earthenware wine jug, and an ornate cup. Marble skirting panels have also been uncovered and restored; they are now in the Málaga Archaeology museum with the other artifacts.  The visitor to the site is most impressed with the mosaics which were left in situ.   The site was completely open to the elements until a conopy was erected about 2005. Before this time the public could visit the site unatended by asking for keys at the tourist office.   

 

Damage


Sadly, persons unknown entered the site late one Saturday night 9th January 2016 and stole large part of the Medusa face mosaic mentioned above. The site was closed for six months whilst an investigation was carried out and security improved. Security cameras have now been installed. The Medusa face moasic is due to be restored by specialists.  

 

Address: Villa Romana de Rio Verde, Calle del Río, 29602 Marbella, Spain

More Information

A website by Teresa Rodríguez Súnico records in great detail in Spanish the story of the Rio Verde Villa and include interviews with the discoverers. Villa Romana de Rio Verde.


View Rio Verde in a larger map